BY BETH QUIMBY

The Portland Press Herald

State environmental regulators are urging the Legislature to re-evaluate Maine’s mercury recycling program, after concluding that the state spent more than $2.5 million in the last 10 years to keep just more than 400 pounds of mercury out of the environment.

That works out to more than $6,000 a pound to collect mercury by recycling compact-fluorescent bulbs, thermostats, and switches from motor vehicles, according to the annual report on product stewardship by the Department of Environmental Protection.

The report’s conclusions drew heated objections Friday from Maine environmental groups, which say the program has succeeded by preventing hundreds of pounds of the toxic metal from contaminating the environment.

They noted that just last week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency underlined the threat of mercury contamination by releasing new standards designed to reduce mercury emissions from power plants nationwide.

The DEP report calculated the state’s spending for staff salaries and the cost of running a collection system to remove products containing mercury from the waste stream.

It said that while the state spent $6,000 a pound to collect recycled mercury, the metal can be purchased on the open market for about $10 a pound.

The report contains no estimates of the benefits of mercury recycling. Such benefits would include avoided costs of secure landfill construction, emission control systems for waste incinerators that burn products with mercury, and cleanups of land or water contamination.

The purpose of Maine’s mercury recycling program is not to produce mercury, but to protect the environment and the public from exposure to it, said Judy Berk, spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the state’s principal environmental advocacy group.

“Coming up with how much it costs to buy mercury on the market is a red herring to deflect us from the real issue — which is the manufacturers’ need to be responsible for their products,” Berk said.

Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters, said mercury is one of the most dangerous poisons know to humans.

“While the rest of the country is moving forward to limit toxic mercury in our air and waters, this proposal from the LePage administration would put Maine families at risk. It would lead Maine down a dangerous path to more poisons in our environment,” Drouin said.

The DEP issued a press release about the report Friday afternoon to generate public comment, said Samantha Depoy-Warren, the department’s spokeswoman. The DEP is seeking public comment to submit to the Legislature’s Environment and Natural Resources Committee on Jan. 16.

Lawmakers can consider changing the product stewardship law, which essentially requires manufacturers to pay for collection and recycling efforts.

The DEP’s 22-page report arrives at starkly different conclusions from an 85-page report on product stewardship that the DEP released in 2010 under the administration of Gov. John Baldaccci, a Democrat.

The earlier report recommended expanding mercury recycling incentives from households to small businesses.

Maine has led the country in setting up programs to require manufacturers and consumers to bear the cost of recycling toxic metals, electronics and other waste and keep them out of incinerator plants.

In 2010, it became the first state to establish a product stewardship framework law, which established an ongoing legislative process to add products, such as syringes and other medical products, to the list.

Rep. Melissa Innes, D-Yarmouth, sponsor of the framework law, said manufacturers have made progress in removing mercury from products, but it will be years before mercury disappears from the waste stream.

Matt Prindiville of Rockport, associate director of the Product Policy Institute, said although 400 pounds of mercury doesn’t sound like a lot, it takes just a tiny amount of the toxic metal to affect a child’s brain. He said Mainers like product stewardship programs because they generate jobs.

“It is unconscionable that Maine DEP would protect the rights of out-of-state polluters above the health of Maine people,” Prindiville said.

Depoy-Warren said the DEP is not calling for abandoning efforts to keep mercury out of the environment.

“All we are saying in this report is we believe the programs can be improved to make sure these programs are cost-effective,” she said.

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